Mood and Motivation

One of the most important things to understand, in terms of how our brains work and how differences in how our brains are wired up makes us who we are, is how much emotion determines everything else. The Affective system is the boss system, because it drives the Executive system, which supports the Cognitive system.  What we pay attention to, what we do, and how we think and learn and remember, all depend on emotion. We think we can be rational, but there really isn’t much going on in the brain without emotion, without the Affective system assigning a charge to things.

This is because the brain’s job is to ensure the survival of the body. The brain’s number one priority is to get our needs met and to prevent harm.  So the things we need have a big positive charge on them (we want them), to make us notice and respond to them, and the things that are dangerous have a big negative charge on them (we are afraid of them), also to make us notice and respond to them (quickly!)  These things have a bigger charge than everything else, the things that don’t meet our needs and can’t really hurt us, so they eclipse everything else.  They interfere with our attending to, and responding to, the other things that maybe we think we want to do.

This explains a large proportion of what drives us crazy about the people around us, and our own behavior. In fact, by observing what we’re doing or paying attention to, we can determine what has the strongest charge.  Here’s an example. Have you ever wondered (maybe loudly) why your child doesn’t start working on the paper that was assigned two weeks ago until 11:00 the night before it’s due?  Well, it makes perfect sense, really. If I have an assignment and I’m not working on it, there is either too much negative charge (I hate doing it, I’m afraid I can’t do it, I’m afraid of missing a social event in order to do it). Or there is not enough positive charge on doing it (it’s stupid and boring).

Or, there’s not enough negative charge on not doing it. The reason we don’t start the paper until the night before it’s due is because it’s only then that the negative charge on not doing it becomes stronger than the negative charge on doing it. The negative charge on showing up without it and getting a failing grade becomes stronger than the positive charge on hanging out with my friends. What we do is always what has, for us at the moment, the strongest emotional charge.

Changing the emotional motivation is the only way to change attention and behavior. No learning or thinking or remembering goes on if we don’t feel safe or if our basic needs aren’t met. This is critically important for parents and teachers to understand.